PICK OF THE GALLERIES: Broken pots and sticky-tape spiders

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The Independent Culture
Mark Dion

Tate Gallery, London

The Tate Gallery, US artist , and a team of volunteers have been working together on the "Tate Thames Dig" since the summer. First there were beachcombings of the Thames riverbanks at two sites, then finds were examined and classified in a field tent open to the public, and now the objects are on display in an enormous double-sided mahogany cabinet in the Tate's Art Now room.

Between glass-fronted display cases above, and storage space below, are drawers which smoothly slide open for the viewer's delectation. Three examples contain: an array of fan-shaped shells ordered by size, fragments of pottery arranged by pattern, and plastic bottle tops in groups of different colours. After the visual feast has been enjoyed, issues such as taxonomy come to mind. The method of display - referencing a Victorian cabinet of curiosities - indicates that Dion has reworked orthodox procedures of collecting and classifying.

Millbank finds are on one side of the cabinet, Bankside finds on the other. Why these sites in the first place? Because the existing Tate at Millbank is going to be joined by Tate Modern at Bankside, and the artist has gone along with promoting this fact through his work. This means that the viewer is guided into comparing the two sites (rather than, say, building up a single picture of the relationship between an urban society at the end of the 20th century and its riverside relics). So maybe there was pressure to come up with significant differences between the two sides of the cabinet. There is, for example, a drawerful of animal jawbones and teeth from Bankside, and a drawerful of oxidised iron objects from Millbank. But could a drawerful of rusty nails not have been made from the material found at Bankside? A drawerful of jaw from Millbank? The realisation gradually dawns that the viewer is totally at the mercy of the collector/ displayer.

On the wall of the Art Now room is an array of mahogany-framed photographs of the people that were involved in the project. Each person is isolated and smiling, echoing the clean and tidy artefacts on display. Labels betray that the portraits are arranged in alphabetical order. They allow you to identify the artist, the curator and members of the Dig Team, and make you realise that there are no labels in the cabinet.

What this exhibition really unearths is enlightenment: collecting, classifying, displaying and labelling is information control is power.

`: Tate Thames Dig': Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000) to 20 Feb

Confederacy of Pleasures

Gallery Westland Place, London

This is a new venue with a cafe integrated into the ground floor of its two-storey galleries. Artists Jo Bennett and Denis Glaser have curated the show which comprises a dozen installations and a series of Saturday afternoon performances: a suitable double platform for the artists involved to present their own idiosyncratic attitudes and behaviour.

Jason Coburn has thrown a litre of paint onto the gallery wall. Rather than being an anti-establishment gesture, it's a playful piece of conceptual art whose sensuality was underlined on the Saturday of my visit by the performance of Alex Baker and Alexander Costello. One of the pair crouched under a table repeatedly shouting "MAN-GO! MAN-GO!" through a loudhailer, while the other used a mallet to wallop mangoes on the tabletop, the juicy flesh flying across the gallery. The disturbing thing was how close the pounding mallet seemed to come to a man's skull.

Sophie Hayes's video of fingertips attempting to repair the mutilated bodies of insects was echoed on Saturday by Nicholas Symes sitting, tweezers in hand, at the desk of his biscuit-mending practice. It's great to realise that - as we move into the 21st century - contemporary art is poised to save the whole world, dead spiders and custard creams included.

Other installations include John Strutton's wall of 200-or-so line drawings. The scenes he presents mix the blandly conventional and the surreal. A green gunge, studded with red and green berries, crops up somewhere on each sketch. If this work had me looking around for a Geiger counter, so did Tina Gallifent's video taken in the weird vicinity of Dungeness power station. It's partly the accompanying bluesy guitar soundtrack that makes the video seem warm; warm in a different way from the plant coolant that can be seen bubbling away in the sea.

Insecurity - about the world and their position in it - is a given for most of these artists. The skewed perspectives and obsessional behaviour in the show is their way of dealing with it all. Vivid and voyeuristic for the visitor.

`Confederacy of Pleasures': Gallery Westland Place, N1 (0207 251 6456) to 8 Jan

David Thorpe

Interim Art, London

The five pictures in this show of work by David Thorpe are made entirely of layers of coloured paper, cut out with a scalpel and stuck together by a fine spray of glue. If you stare closely at them, you discover that the layering is done in quite a sophisticated way, but you also notice odd pencil marks, dust, nicks in the paper, and an absence of any interest within each hard-edged area of flat colour. So you step back and enjoy the spectacular images as they were meant to be seen.

Previous work by Thorpe featured modernist high-rise buildings at sunset, and made urban living look cool and romantic. The present show is dominated by idealised rural scenes in the full light of day. Mountains rather than tower blocks, then. The skies may be lighter, with no sudden tonal or colour contrasts, but they're still dominated by long feathery clouds that must suit the artist's paper-cutting technique. Indeed all the elements of the composition - mountains, concrete blocks, fir trees - are made of long strips, which helps account for the pictures' elegance.

The signs of human presence are high up in most of the pictures. In Out from the Night, the Day is Beautiful and we are Filled with Joy (a title which can be read as a pretty fair summary of Thorpe's latest professional move) it is in the form of hang-gliders. In Pilgrims - where three-storey buttressed concrete blocks jut out from a mountainside - there are cable- cars and helicopters. And in the tallest and most magnificent picture in the show, caravans rest on top of a regular tower-block of a mountain. With this image in particular, Thorpe seems to have taken his vision of contemporary urban architecture a stage further on. An individual high- rise resident may have relatively modest-sized accommodation, but the wonderful view is all his or hers, and so, effectively, is the great mass of the building. Such an elemental view of high-rise life wouldn't be tenable from the socially disastrous first decades of modernism, but it must strike a chord with today's prosperous residents of the Barbican towers, for example. And surely every worker at Canary Wharf can see the contemporaneity - the exhilarating relevance and romance - of this image.

David Thorpe, Interim Art, E2 (0171729 4112) to 10 Jan

The Office of Misplaced Events

Lotta Hammer Gallery, London

The windows are whited-out, the status of the building ambiguous. Inside, there is art: Martin Boyce's chair is propped against a door handle preventing anyone intruding into the room from the back; Richard Wilson's filing cabinet with drawers labelled "payslips" and "accounts" is split asunder by another whose drawers are labelled "negatives" and "projects." If the place is an office, it's no longer dealing with the banal.

These and other mild acts of anarchy create an environment where anything goes. In Christopher Bucklow's video, a sumptuously dressed, russet-haired woman plants bulbs in ground covered by autumn leaves, one by night and one by day. That's what she appears to be doing, anyway, and the sweet- smelling display of Delft-blue hyacinths on a soil-covered plinth elsewhere in the show would seem to confirm this. The work succeeds in bringing a blend of fantasy and reality to the office, adding colour and life to it. But what do the more self-indulgent and obscure works by Mike Nelson, Simon Starling, Michael Kruger and Joao Penalva bring? For a start they bring self-indulgence and obscurity, which can be like a breath of fresh air to an overly logical environment.

See if Simon Morrissey - the office manager - can answer the questions that come to mind (he can answer them but he may be out to lunch). In any case, give the office plenty of time, its personal space or spaces, and try to relax into the studiously perverse.

`Office of Misplaced Events': Lotta Hammer, W1 (0171 6362221) to 15 Jan